Local History as “The Benchmark”

A little over a year after graduating from college, I got a job as an acquisitions editor for a local history publishing company. I spent most of every day calling and writing emails to local historians in what the company called the “Mountain West”: Colorado, Montana, Utah, and Wyoming (Nevada was added later). Despite my initial fear of cold calling, I really came to enjoy talking to these historians. They were museum directors, archivists, librarians, historical society leaders and members, and history buffs. What some of them lacked in formal training they more than made up for in interest, determination, and attention to detail. Many had a lifetime of experience as a resident in that place, learning and living the history each day. The first author I brought on board, for a big town in Wyoming, was one such historian.

He was an older man who had been a teacher and who was absolutely passionate about his town’s history. With the help of two capable museum employees, he put together a thorough and colorful collection of photographs dating back to before the town’s founding in 1868 and reaching more or less up through the present. His folksy, down-to-earth writing style perfectly fit the proud western town he was writing about and the book was well received.

The author introduced me to the genre of local history, and showed me how it is deeply personal, rooted in one place and among the people who made the town what it was, not just by owning property or being the mayor, but by going to church or school, by moving there from Germany in 1883 or simply by being born.

Since I began working for that publisher, I relished the moment when, at a book fair or in a bookstore or local library, someone would pick up the book from their town, with pictures of their old school/favorite museum/courthouse. Their delight is perfectly described by Lewis Mumford, the great writer and humanist, in a 1923 speech:

All of us feel, at bottom, with Walt Whitman, that there is no sweeter meat than that which clings to our own bones. It is this conviction that gives value to local history: we feel that our own lives, the lives of our ancestors and neighbors, the events that have taken place in the particular locality where we have settled, are every bit as important as the lives of people who are more remote from us, no matter how numerous these others may be; or how insignificant we may seem alongside of them.

This love of local history is not necessarily narcissistic; it is instead a fascination with the kinds of stories that don’t make it into Amazon best-sellers, the stories that may be difficult or even impossible to corroborate in government documents or local archives. These are stories that can’t easily be grouped together to frame major trends in immigration or politics or education. But they may be able to tell us something about how some people lived, and what it was like to be alive in, for example, a frontier town in the late 19th century. These stories are compelling, personal, and absolutely accessible (no Ph.D. required!).

(They’re also important in ways that other historians sometimes forget. As Mumford added, “local history is a sort of benchmark to which all more generalized and specialized kinds of history must come back to, for verification, as a point of reference.”)

But here’s the thing: when local history is built around photos, when it’s built around the story of a town’s relatively recent founding in a borderlands area and when most of the people in that photo are white settlers, “local history” can be problematic. In many of the books I edited in the west, I found it frustrating to see authors occasionally dispatch local American Indian tribes on the first page as a nuisance (for example, “the land was plagued with poisonous snakes, catastrophic flooding, and Indians”), or a prelude to the “real history” of their white ancestors.

At The Appendix, we won’t be doing that. There are no hidden assumptions inside our use of the word “local”. In future issues we will bring you photos and prose from towns across the United States and beyond—but we’re also interested in “alternate” local histories of place, compellingly told. If a place doesn’t have photos, and instead has memories, or oral histories, or other records left in bone and stone, we won’t exclude it. We’re looking for historians who, for the most part, live in the places they write about. But if they are absent, if they’re writing a history of loss, we like that too.

For example, in The Appendix’s first issue, “The End,” we are pleased to have historian and Renaissance woman Lynn Downey as our local history contributor. Downey does not actually live in Vulture City, the place she’s writing about, but that’s because no one lives there anymore. It’s one of countless gold rush ghost towns that dot the West…

So if you happen to live in a town that does have a working post office or internet connection, drop me a line at [email protected]. We welcome submissions, suggestions, and feedback, and we hope that The Appendix can provide its readers with compelling examples from this benchmark genre.